Fortune cookie wisdom from a . . . does it matter?

“Enthusiasm is the greatest asset in the world. It beats money, power, and influence.” It’s a piece of fortune-cookie insight (literally) perhaps composed by a hack writer working at slave’s wages. Whatever its origins, it’s a useful reminder for those among us who feel we can’t do x or y because we lack this or that. And what drives enthusiasm? Conviction.

 

 

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Northern California

Two months ago I drove around the more humble parts of Santa Clara County, and I saw a number of shops with empty windows, and that’s when I started to believe a Depression had come to the state, if not the country. Lately I’ve been speaking to people in real estate, and most people agree that the California property market is the bellwether for the country. If it does well, then the country does well.

But the market has been depressed mostly because prospective homeowners can’t afford the 20-30% deposit now required to purchase a home. This is why most purchases are transacted by the wealthy who have cash to spare. Because housing is a lagging indicator, it’ll pick up only when jobs pick up, when people start earning money again.

Good news: the rate of activity in the commercial real estate market in California is slowly but gradually increasing. Companies are renting out offices again, with the intention to fill these offices with members of the workforce. Here’s hoping, anyway.

Looks like the tech sector in Silicon Valley is keeping northern California afloat. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a visceral appreciation for this place. Now I do.

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Notes from a random Stanford Univ whiteboard

“They give you B.
You provide A and C.
You get out N and M.
Use N and M to create K.”

I suppose any entrepreneur can provide A and C. But game-changing entrepreneurs create K.

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Wealth and Poverty of Nations (one initial reaction)

I’m traveling at present, but I picked up The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), by David Landes, which was lying on a desk with its hardback binding coming off unglued.

I’m fascinated by its ambition. Why do nations succeed or fail in economic terms? Landes believes there isn’t just one answer. Rather, there are various answers, and they lie in population, public health, climate, ecology, and so on. One of the things that struck me as interesting was that he penned the following words — roughly a decade before Occupy Wall Street and the mobilization of resources by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:

“The old division of the world into two power blocs, East and West, has subsided. Now the big challenge and threat is the gap in wealth and health that separates rich and poor [...] Some countries are not only not gaining; they are growing poorer, relatively and sometimes absolutely. Others are barely holding their own. Others are catching up. Our task (the rich countries), in our own interest as well as theirs, is to help the poor become healthier and wealthier. If we do not, they will seek to take what they cannot make; and if they cannot earn by exporting commodities, they will export people. In short, wealth is an irresistible magnet; and poverty is a potentially raging contaminant: it cannot be segregated, and our peace and prosperity depend in the long run on the well-being of others.”

The inverse relationship between the strength of a nation’s economy and its morbidity and mortality rates is a problem that we are starting to recognize as a society. No doubt historians had been discussing this relationship for a considerable time now; but it took a financial crisis, a bailout of the banks, visionary billionaire-philanthropists, and an expanding network of global, engaged citizens to reify the possibilities for broad socioeconomic advancement that were embedded in these discussions.

In explaining for the successes and failure of nations, Landes takes a politically incorrect position, supporting Max Weber’s notion of the Protestant work ethic, acknowledging the virtues of climate theory, and generally resurrecting unpopular arguments that cast him as a Eurocentric critic.

I’ve only read the beginning chapters of Wealth and Poverty, but they’re enough to draw me in further, political correctness notwithstanding.

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Red building near Bugis, Singapore

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A new word in the business of restaurant reservations

Wherever there are restaurants, there’s a demand for reservation systems. Foodies still use a crude combination of the phone and a notebook to make reservations. But increasingly, they’re doing it online. This is especially true if the phone rings and no one answers, or if it’s too loud on one end of the phone, or if waiting staff fail to speak English fluently, a phenomenon that is quite apparent in an immigrant-driven country like Singapore. (Here, many bus drivers hail from China, and some can’t communicate in basic English.)

On this, the second day of Thanksgiving week, I visited P.S. Café in Singapore’s Tanglin Village (on Dempsey Road) the same day an article in the online Wall Street Journal appeared about a new reservation system from a start-up called Chope. P.S. Café apparently uses Chope’s online-booking technology, which is also a sign that Chope’s executives place their stamp of approval on its offerings. It’s a business relationship that enriches the brand equity of both entities.

I post this because it seems right for the binge-eating occasion of Thanksgiving (albeit only in the United States), and because one of the executives at Chope happens to be an old college classmate, and because of the idea’s simplicity. Useful technology doesn’t always have to be complicated stuff.

Neither does naming it: Chope is Singlish (the local pidgin version of English) for “to reserve.”

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Some people and things to be thankful for

    • Time with friends and family
    • Cookie Monster’s defense of Occupy Wall Street
    • The continued democratization of Myanmar
    • Aung San Suu Kyi
    • 2011 movies with Ryan Gosling in them
    • Libraries
    • The Financial Times
    • The Daily Show and The Colbert Report
    • Access to food and clean water
    • Social enterprises like Tegu, a toy manufacturer based in Honduras

Happy thanksgiving, everyone.

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Amid China’s challenges, the U.S. pivots toward the Pacific

According to one source, there are 477 million Internet users in China. In addition, there may be as many as 185 million bloggers and microbloggers among them, a portion of which are fomenting dissent and organizing political protest against the one-party state. So skeptics may be forgiven for thinking that China’s growth isn’t sustainable. Wealth disparity, flaws in the political system, voices crying out for freedom of expression: all of these pose pressure on the social fabric of the nation, threatening its stability.

Further, China’s Vice-Premier and Minister of Finance recently announced that Beijing predicts a “lasting world recession” that could, next year, see China post its first trade deficit in a generation. If China were to bail Europe out of the sovereign-debt crisis, its citizens, a majority of whom are poor, might understandably revolt. Amid all of these signs, China could slow down or collapse internally from missteps or a piece of bad luck.

But the United States isn’t counting on it. Last week President Obama announced that the U.S. military would station 2,500 troops in Darwin, Australia, a location that holds symbolic value for having been a crucial outpost of American strength during World War II. Unlike U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan, Darwin is out of the range of Chinese missiles: it offers a haven in which the U.S. can stockpile equipment and hold resources.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) seems to welcome the move. Even nations like Singapore, which boasts strong relations with China, would have an interest in maintaining a balance of power that will restrain China’s want for resources in the region. The Philippines is nervous about the contentiousness of Beijing, which has been firmly claiming rights to what has traditionally been the Filipino part of the South China Sea.

Happily, the Asia-Pacific region holds a large bounty for the United States. Shortly after Obama’s announcement, which constituted a major shift in foreign policy, Indonesia announced the purchase of Boeing jets and F-16 fighter planes. Perhaps it was a gesture that indicates the quid-pro-quo nature of this strategic pivot. Perhaps it was another symbolic expression of strength.

Whether or not the U.S. has any bite left beyond its bark is another story. If China were to declare war on a country that the U.S. is treaty-bound to defend, would Washington have any money left to defend it? They could sell war bonds, but who would buy these bonds, if not China?

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Occupy Wall Street and disappointed Asian parents

The police have brutalized peaceful protesters and unleashed a public-relations nightmare in U.C. Davis, and their counterparts in Berkeley have given new meaning to the phrase “Beat poets.” The reactions and counter-reactions could escalate over the next few months, of course, and there’s no end to the tension in sight. And then there’s this self-evident truth, which opens up a whole new front in the dialogue on despair and disparity.

Asian parents in the context of Occupy Wall StreetPosted by a friend of mine, it reminds me of something the president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, said: “My biggest problem is that my parents are too demanding.”

Fareed Zakaria just posted a piece related to this on his CNN GPS blog, which he closes with an explanation for why South Koreans react to tests the way they do: “[T]his test determines which college a student will go to, which company they will then work at, the size of their eventual paycheck and even whom they will marry.”

 

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Buffett buys 5% of Big Blue through common stock

Over the past three quarters this year, Warren Buffett, on behalf of Berkshire Hathaway, purchased about $10.6 billion worth of shares in IBM. This was surprising; he had traditionally confessed to a lack of understanding of the tech business, and he famously avoided Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft during the tech boom a decade ago.

To figure out why Buffett broke precedent, I did some research. It seems that IBM has all the makings of a typical Buffett buy, among which are the following qualities:

  • A healthy financial position with strong free cash flow numbers ($16.3 b in 2010)
  • A competitive moat in the B2B realm (“Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”)
  • A history of achieving its strategic goals and meeting its quantitative targets
  • An attainable five-year plan that sees the firm increasing its stake in
    • growth markets, which is expected to grow 5% per year, a rate twice that of industrialized economies;
    • cloud computing;
    • business analytics, which is expected to see a 29-fold growth in global data volumes to 35 zettabytes by 2021, in addition to an increased need among businesses to manage and mine mountains of data;
    • smart cities, which is expected to yield $10 b in revenue through 2015
  • A large stock of 40,000 active patents across the world
  • A continued interest and significant investment in R&D ($60 b since 2000)

Barring a major disruption in technology or the macroeconomic environment, the future looks bright for Big Blue and its long-term investors. Frankly, I can’t wait to see how it’ll fare when the economy starts heating up again and sees a spike in the number of smart cities (i.e., cities with smart technology embedded in their buildings and infrastructure).

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